Chinese Calligraphy: What’s the Point?

It was a Friday night at my house, and to celebrate I was watching hit 1970s British period drama Upstairs Downstairs. Suddenly, a scene unfolded that reminded me of our upcoming Chinese Calligraphy exhibition and my confusion about the whole thing. Let me tell you about it.

I’ll set the stage: we have Mr. Hudson, a servant and strict adherent to the Victorian era’s hierarchical social values. And then there’s one Thomas—young, handsome, iconoclastic and, significantly, a chauffeur of motor-cars. When the two meet, sparks fly!

One day, Mr. Hudson is hunched over at the table, writing inexplicably with ink and quill. Just then, Thomas comes in from an afternoon drive, takes off his motor-car gloves, and peers over Mr. Hudson’s shoulder. “What’s this?” he asks.

“It’s handwriting,” answers Mr. Hudson in an imperious tone, “something of a hobby.”

“Handwriting! That’s very nice,” Thomas says. “What sort of stuff do you write, apart from Christmas cards?”

Mr. Hudson, a little flustered, replies, “What do I write? Well, I copy out passages from newspapers.”

“Copy!” says Thomas. “What’s the point?”

Which is what made me think of our Calligraphy show and my original question about the thing: what’s the point?

But where Thomas was right, I was wrong, as I’ve since discovered. Chinese calligraphy often reproduces poems that already exist, but it’s not a craft as with Mr. Hudson’s handwriting. It’s something abstract and amazing, once you get it: each character is an image in itself, and each style unique to the calligrapher. Seeing Guernica for the first time, you might not know its name, but you’ll know it for a Picasso. (Speaking of which, guess who was mad into Chinese calligraphy? Yes, Picasso.)

A lot of the museum’s materials on Chinese calligraphy emphasize the rigorous discipline of the art. That of course is important and interesting to some, but whatever—just think about making each letter of a poem a masterpiece in itself, so that beautifully written takes on a double meaning. One final thing: you know what else is beautiful to look upon? Thomas of Upstairs Downstairs. Just sayin.

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